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How The Handmaid's Tale Became the Cautionary Tale of our Time

The show enters its third season as a cultural touch point for the consequences of power and patriarchy gone unchecked.
  • Elisabeth Moss stars in The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)
    Elisabeth Moss stars in The Handmaid's Tale (Hulu)

    It seems fitting that the third season of The Handmaid's Tale would premiere later this week, in the midst of news that states like Alabama and Georgia are working to change their abortion laws to make it more difficult (if not impossible) for women to have a say about their bodies. Since its premiere in April of 2017, the show's dystopian science fiction has become a frequent reference for those who've come to see it as an increasingly realistic consequence of the attitudes and policies of right wing leaders in the US and abroad.

    Based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, the show's future theocracy, Gilead, keeps women as property, with the fertile among them given the sole purpose of carrying children for more powerful women who can't. Although the subject matter is decidedly dark — many scenes are downright terrifying to watch — the show's premise and its instantly recognizable iconography seem to keep finding their way into the political zeitgeist.

    There was, of course, Michelle Wolf's comedy set at the 2018 White House Correspondents' Dinner. Donald Trump didn't attend, but press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was there. And Wolf — who at the time was best known for The Daily Show and is now best know for … this — called Sanders out with a Handmaid’s reference, comparing her to the show's repressive, traitorous Aunt Lydia, played by Ann Dowd.

    The joke — coupled with another about a smoky eye — became one of the great tempests of Trump’s sophmore year in office, with Sanders and her backers taking great umbrage against a liberal comedian taking shots at a right-wing woman’s looks. Wolf, of course, was mostly dragging Huckabee Sanders for following orders and contributing to an administration that was (and is) stripping women of their rights. See, because that's exactly how it happens on the show.

    If you haven't watched The Handmaid's Tale, you're likely at least familiar with the garb. Within the world of the show, the handmaid's uniform is meant to restrict its wearer to their role. In the real world, it seems to keep surfacing in pop culture. Just recently, PopSugar employee Casey McCormick thought she saw someone dressed up as a Handmaid that was about to jump from a building. Panicked, she called 911. Amidst the new attempts to ban abortion, seeing a distressed woman dressed like Elisabeth Moss's Offred isn’t quite the left-field notion it once might have been. (Good news — this time — the "jumper" was just a red umbrella.) 

    Leslie Jones wore that instantly recognizable hooked cape on the May 18th season finale of Saturday Night Live, while talking about the new abortion bans on Weekend Update. "Basically we’re all handmaids now," she said, before revealing a more powerful shirt that said "Mine," with an arrow pointing towards her womb.

    This wasn't the first time that Saturday Night Live drew allusions between Gilead and the actual news. A year ago, they had a sketch called "Handmaids in the City," which was a mashup between the Sex and the City and The Handmaid's Tale In it, Amy Schumer, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Cecily Strong contemplated what they could actually do anymore, noting that the only important part of them was their fertility. In the middle of the sketch, a voiceover states that the mock sitcom was "more uplifting than the news."

    Even Katy Perry predicted it back in 2017. While hosting the MTV VMA's that year, she joker how the red robe was "very retro pilgrim" and "super cool," before being handed a newspaper that literally stated "The World Is On Fire!"

    As for the horrors that lay ahead in the upcoming third season, only time will tell whether they'll strike the same cord across the media landscape, but for many concerned about consequences power and patriarchy gone unchecked, The Handmaid's Tale is already the cautionary tale of our time.

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    Karen Belz has contributed to sites such as Bustle, HelloGiggles, and So Yummy. Follow her on Twitter at @KarenEBelz.

    TOPICS: The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu, MTV Video Music Awards, Saturday Night Live, Ann Dowd, Elisabeth Moss, Katy Perry, Leslie Jones, Michelle Wolf, Trump Presidency